Dylan Jamison—a.k.a. Dylan Charles to the millions of fans who followed him on social media, who’d bought his last four albums, and who attended his sold-out concerts—held his hand up in a final greeting to the crowd and left the stage.
Tonight had been a great show, just as all of the shows had been on the summer tour, but with another month still left on the schedule, he was finding himself fading faster than usual. He could crash right now in his tour bus, but with at least the next hour reserved for signing autographs and greeting fans backstage, it would have to wait. Usually by this time in the tour, he’d already be itching to start writing the next songs, a few of them already taking residence in his head.
But as of now…he had nothing. His muse had seemingly left him.
Dylan had some idea why, but he refused to accept the possibility that the recent death of a man who’d run out on him and his mom before he was four would have such power over his creativity. Which was why, in the weeks since he’d heard of his old man’s death, he’d practiced and laughed with the band, taken his best photos with his fans, and artfully dodged questions about the end of his two-year-running love affair with a certain country music sweetheart as if there wasn’t a strange emptiness inside.
His smile was brittle and his eyes glassy by the time the last fans trailed out and he said good night to the band. Getting up from his chair, he went to the cooler to grab another water, needing the hydration more than the numbing effects of the alcohol at the bar.
Behind him, the door creaked open and then quickly shut, and Dylan turned around, expecting to see someone from the stage crew telling him the coast was clear if he wanted to head out. Instead he was met with the chubby face of a girl no older than twelve, maybe thirteen, with bright red hair and brown eyes that studied him curiously.
Looked like someone slipped by the usual parade of security around the place. “Hey, kid. I think you may have taken a wrong turn somewhere.”
“You’re Dylan, right?”
“Uh, yeah. You’re kind of young to be attending a concert by yourself,” he said, easing over to the door that he pulled back open and looked out to see if there was anyone waiting. But no one was waiting, only the stage crew passing through the hallways, busy taking down and packing equipment away. He left the door open and turned back to his guest. “Are you here with your mom? Did you get separated?”
“Nope. Came here by myself. I wanted to finally meet you.” She walked over to the catering table and dropped a purple backpack on the floor. “Wow. Look at all this. Do they leave all of this for you every time you have a concert?”
“Usually. Help yourself to anything you’d like.”
“Really?” she asked, her eyes widening at the prospect. “Anything?”
She stared at the array of candy and treats, reaching out to grab something before stopping when something else caught her eye. Finally, she grabbed a couple of Red Vines and a cupcake that she took to the couch and plopped down, licking the top of a cupcake as if she hadn’t a care in the world.
Unlike him. Last thing he needed was some headline alleging something untoward between him and this young girl, whoever she was. “How did you manage to make your way back here without someone stopping you?”
She shrugged. “I’m a kid. No one cares if you act like you belong. I tagged behind one of the first groups who came back here to see you. I’ve been waiting in the bathroom until everyone left.”
Smart. And dangerous. Did she know the risks of being out alone at night in the city? “Well, I’m flattered that you took the time to come and see me, but I’m getting ready to head out. Did you have someone who’s waiting to take you home?”
“Nah. I took the bus out and then took an Uber here.”
“A bus? From where?”
“Santa Rosa?” He looked at his watch. Nearly midnight. That was almost a seven-hour trip. “And how are you getting back?”
She ignored the question. “Why did you change your name? To Dylan Charles?”
He blinked. That was pretty random. “Privacy, I guess. Look, I’ve got to say, kid, I’m kind of worried about you. Do your parents know you’re here?”
“I left my mom a note, but she’s working a double tonight, so she probably won’t find out until she gets home.”
This was worse than he thought.
“Mr. Charles? You’re all set,” a burly security guy said from the door.
Dylan whipped around, desperate for someone to get him out of this fiasco. “Great. Actually, could you do me a favor and find the stage manager?” he asked, and nodded his head toward the girl. “Looks like we have a straggler who’s going to need some assistance with getting home.”
“Please,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I got here okay, didn’t I? Besides, I’m not ready to go until you and I talk. That’s why I’m here.”
The security guy caught his eye and nodded, giving Dylan a sense of relief to know he was heading out to find someone—anyone—who could take control of the situation other than him.
“Okay,” he said when the guy left. “What is so important that you came all the way out here to see me?”
Her bravado seemed to fail her for a moment as she glanced down at her fingernails. “When I saw you were playing in LA, I figured it was my chance. So I saved up my money and bought the bus ticket.”
“The chance to what?”
She bit into her licorice, taking her time as she chewed. “The chance to meet my brother.”
Her brother? The kid was crazy. “Sorry, kid. I think you must be mistaking me for someone else. Charles isn’t my real last name, it’s just—”
“The name you chose. I know. Just like I know your real last name is Jamison. Like mine.”
That stopped him in his tracks. How did she…
“I’m Elle Jamison. My dad’s name is Brick Jamison. Just like yours. You probably heard that he died last month and I figured you might want to meet me since we have so much in common, what with both of us losing the same dad.”
Brick Jamison. It was strange hearing that name out loud even though it was playing in the back of his own mind since he’d heard the news of Brick’s death. But it wasn’t something welcome, never had been since Brick had walked out on him and his mom. It was why Dylan had changed his own when he hit the road, not wanting any association with the old man.
“Sorry, kid. But the name Brick Jamison doesn’t mean anything to me. Now, I think we need to get ahold of your mom and let her know where you are. Then I’m going to have someone from the crew drive you home.”
“No. You’re wrong. I can prove it.” She dug into her pocket and pulled out a rumpled photo that she held out to him.
Reluctantly, he took it and steeled himself for whatever he was about to see. The image was of a man very much like the one featured in his mom’s old photos—at least before she’d burned most of them—only now his face was more weathered and weary. On his lap was a young girl about eight with bright red hair and a toothy smile who, not surprisingly, looked a lot like his young guest. It was like a kick in the gut to see Brick Jamison, and he’d be lying if part of it wasn’t a twinge of jealousy. After ducking out on Dylan, looked like Brick had decided to stick around for this one. Well, good for Elle. But it didn’t improve his opinion of the old man.
He handed the photo back. “Look, whatever you think was going to happen here isn’t going to happen,” he said, his tone terse. “I didn’t know my old man and I have no interest in knowing anything about him now. I’m sorry that you came all the way here, but there’s nothing more we have to say.”
There was a rapping on the door and he looked over to find the stage manager standing there. “Sorry about this, Dylan. I don’t know how she got by security. But we can take care of things from here if you want to head out.”
“Wait.” She looked so devastated, her brown eyes brimming with tears, her head shaking side to side. “You really are my brother. Don’t you want to go get some dinner or something? You can hear about me and my mom.”
“I’m sorry, Elle. It’s not going to happen. But what I am going to do is make sure you get home safe and sound.”
She jumped to her feet, her chin trembling. “You’re just a dumb jerk, and I can’t believe that I spent my entire savings coming here to see you.”
“Sorry to disappoint you. If Brick Jamison is your father, then I’m sure it’s something you’re used to. Take care, Elle.” He took one last look at her now tearful face, her eyes already narrowed with anger, and turned away.
He was a dumb jerk. He could own that. But he was also bone-weary tired and admittedly shaken by having a ghost from his past confront him in the form of a young girl who had no idea of the kind of risks she’d taken upon herself coming here tonight.
He needed sleep. That’s all. Some rest and recuperation.
Then, in the morning, he’d be ready to process the bomb she’d just dropped on him.